Never Assume Space is Safe, Hyten Cautions

Aug. 4, 2016: Although space-based capabilities underpin modern American combat, it is often difficult to visualize military space’s connection to combat effects. It’s also hard to see how potential adversaries are actively working to neutralize this US advantage. The national security community has long appreciated both the asymmetric advantages military space offers and its inherent vulnerability, said Gen. John Hyten, head of Air Force Space Command in a recent interview, but broader audiences often need reminders. Space is not a sanctuary, is vital to the American way of war, and enemies seek to neutralize it.

On-orbit vulnerabilities were brought into clear focus in 2007 when China destroyed one of its own space vehicles with an anti-satellite weapon. That Chinese ASAT test not only showed that US satellites are also vulnerable to attack, but it created 2,000-3,000 pieces of dangerous new space debris on orbit. This one event significantly increased the amount of dangerous space debris, as AFSPC tracks roughly 24,000 pieces of orbiting junk, from all sources, and unless objects are in low earth orbit they will likely remain collision threats forever.

“Satellites don’t have mothers,” Hyten noted, which makes it hard for the public to grasp their importance, even for a one-of-a-kind surveillance bird. An action like China’s ASAT test draws people’s attention to what is typically a behind the scenes mission, however.

“Why are nations spending so much?” to counter America’s on-orbit capabilities, Hyten asked. It is because they recognize a clear US advantage that is also a vulnerability. Without the missile warning, precision guidance, communications, datalinks, intelligence, and other on-orbit capabilities AFSPC provides, the US would be forced to fight World War II-style industrial-age warfare with far slower, more costly, and deadlier battles that play into enemies hands.

“It’s a challenge to explain” capabilities that are often viewed as a “utility,” he noted.

Hyten acknowledged that space-based combat contributions sometimes “look like a video game” but “at the end of that keystroke is a billion ?dollar spacecraft,” delivering real-world combat effects. Airmen, even those born and raised in Space Command, tend to think about space effects very differently after they have deployed to a war zone and gotten an up-close look at how space assets help downrange. “It’s all one,” Hyten said, “space, cyber, [and] air,” working together to achieve effects. “Think about the effect,” not the inputs, he said. (See also: Keeping the Focus on Space Junk, Making Space More Military from the August 2016 issue of Air Force Magazine )